As civilizations rise and fall, many scripts and codes are written that eventually become lost to history and time. Some of what survives experts manage to decode, but others elude us and remain mysteries forever. Here are 10 such mysterious historical codes and ciphers that still remain unsolved.
1. Voynich Manuscript
Named after Polish book dealer Wilfrid Michael Voynich who purchased it from an Italian Jesuit library in 1912, the 246-page fragile vellum manuscript is believed to have been written in 15th century Central Europe by an unknown author.
The text in the manuscript contains a looping script of 25 to 30 characters belonging to an unknown language, though some researchers believe it could be medieval Hebrew and features several detailed illustrations. Despite putting the best human and AI decoders on the case, we still don’t know what it says. (source)
2. The Cryptogram of Olivier Levasseur
Olivier Levasseur was an 18th-century scholar and a naval officer with a love for masonic symbology. After his stint as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, he began his pirate career, looting many ships in the course of 14 years.
When he was eventually captured and ready to be hanged on July 7, 1730, by the French, Levasseur tossed a cryptogram of his own making into the crowd exclaiming: “Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!”
The cryptogram, written in 17 lines of unknown symbols, has never been completely decoded despite many attempts, and from the little we know, it is believed to lead to a treasure now worth £100 million buried on an island in the Indian Ocean. (1,2)
3. Shugborough Inscription
Inscribed on the 18th century Shepherd’s Monument in Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire, England below a mirror image of Nicolas Poussin’s painting of the Shepherds of Arcadia, this code features a sequence of the letters O U O S V A V V between the letters D and M.
Throughout the previous centuries, there have been several attempts at decoding it by linguists and even the famous former Bletchley Park decoders. Many theories and solutions were proposed including that the code is an anagram of an English phrase or a Biblical Latin phrase.
4. The Phaistos Disk
Discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier, the Phaistos Disc is made of fired clay from the Minoan palace of Phaistos on the island of Crete, possibly in the middle or late Minoan Bronze Age between 1850 and 1600 BCE.
The 15-cm-wide disk is covered on both sides in a clockwise spiral of hieroglyphs featuring 241 tokens that are made up of 45 distinct signs. Experts in the field aren’t even sure if it’s a script, syllabary, an alphabet, or logography. They don’t even expect to succeed at deciphering the code because it is one-of-a-kind, and there is no reference for meaningful analysis. (source)
5. Indus Script
Also known as the “Harappan Script,” this script dates back to 2700–1900 BCE, and was discovered along with over 4,000 inscribed objects in the Indus Valley. Some of these objects had come as far as Mesopotamia due to trade relations between the two civilizations.
Each object, on average, contains a script made of five symbols, and the longest contains 26 symbols. Though there are arguments over whether the script is connected to the Brāhmī script or to the Dravidian languages, it remains undeciphered still. (source)
Kryptos is a sculpture by the American artist Jim Sanborn created for the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Unveiled in 1990, the sculpture features four different messages encrypted by Sanborn within a combination of the 26 letters of English alphabet.
Of these four messages, three have been translated and contain deliberate misspellings to make it more tricky. The fourth remains a mystery to this date and is one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world, even though Sanborn himself has given a clue that six of the letters spell the word “Berlin” after decrypting. (source)
7. D’Agapeyeff Cipher
Created by Russian-born English cryptographer Alexander D’Agapeyeff in 1939, the cipher was published as a “challenge cipher” at the end of the first edition of his book, Codes and Ciphers.
75628 28591 62916 48164 91748 58464 74748 28483 81638 18174
74826 26475 83828 49175 74658 37575 75936 36565 81638 17585
75756 46282 92857 46382 75748 38165 81848 56485 64858 56382
72628 36281 81728 16463 75828 16483 63828 58163 63630 47481
91918 46385 84656 48565 62946 26285 91859 17491 72756 46575
71658 36264 74818 28462 82649 18193 65626 48484 91838 57491
81657 27483 83858 28364 62726 26562 83759 27263 82827 27283
82858 47582 81837 28462 82837 58164 75748 58162 92000
The cipher consists of 395 digits arranged in groups of five and wasn’t published in any subsequent editions of the book. It remains unsolved to this date, and even D’Agapeyeff has stated that he had forgotten how he encrypted it. (source)
8. Dorabella Cipher
The Dorabella Cipher is an enciphered letter from English composer Edward Elgar to his friend Dora Penny followed by another in July 1897.
The cipher contains three lines with 87 characters made from 24 symbols that look like two to three semicircles arranged in eight different orientations. Dora claims to never have been able to decipher the letter, and to this day its contents remain a mystery. (source)
9. The Tamam Shud Case Code
Found on the copy of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat that belonged to an unidentified man found dead in 1948 on the Somerton Park Beach in South Australia, the code consists of a series of letters written in five lines.
The mystery of the man’s identity received much public interest at the time, and many cryptographers from the Department of Defence were brought to decipher it with no success. A scrap of paper torn from the book containing the words “Tamam shud”, meaning “ended” in Persian, was found in his fob watch, giving the case its name. (source)
10. Rohonc Codex
The codex found in the city of Rohonc in Western Hungary in the early 19th century is an illustrated manuscript by an unknown author containing text that’s written in an unknown language and script.
The manuscript contains 448 pages, and each page consists of nine to 14 rows of symbols that are ten times more in number than any known alphabet, leading to the belief that it could be syllabary or logography.
Despite many investigations by scholars, there is no definitive understanding of what the text or the 87 illustrations in the book really mean. (source)
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